Ruling the Spirit

In Ruling the Spirit, Claire Taylor Jones revises the narrative of women's involvement in the German Dominican order, arguing that Dominican women did not lose their piety and literacy in the fifteenth century as is commonly believed, but instead were encouraged to reframe their practice around the observance of the Divine Office.

Ruling the Spirit
Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany

Claire Taylor Jones

2017 | 232 pages | Cloth $59.95
Religion | History
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. The Office in Dominican Legislation, 1216-1303
Chapter 2. Detachment, Order, and Observance in Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Seuse
Chapter 3. Liturgical Devotion and Visionary Order in the Fourteenth-Century Sisterbooks
Chapter 4. The Office in Dominican Legislation, 1388-1475
Chapter 5. Contemplative Visualization Versus Liturgical Piety in Johannes Nider
Chapter 6. Liturgical Community and Observant Spirituality in the Work of Johannes Meyer


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Mitt wie grosser minnender begird sy geflissen wer den orden an allen stuken ze haltend, da von wer fil ze sagen [Of the great and loving desire with which she zealously observed the order in every detail there would be much to tell].
—Töss Sisterbook, Life of Margret Finkin
Toward the beginning of her Büchlein der Gnaden Überlast (Book of the Burden of Grace, c. 1345), Christina Ebner illustrates the power of the Dominican liturgy with a tale about Sister Hailrat, the Engelthal convent's first choir mistress. The event occurred in the early days of the convent, during the first Advent in which they performed the Office according to the Dominican Rite.
In dem ersten advent da sie nach dem orden sungen . . . da sie nu komen zu dem virden suntag im advent, da sie sungen die metin, da sie nu komen hintz dem funften respons "Virgo Israel," und der vers "In caritate perpetua," daz sank sie teutsch und sank so unmenschlichen wol, daz man brufet, sie sunge mit engelischer stimme.... Diser heilig covent wart von grozer andaht sinnelos und vilen nider als die toten und lagen also biz sie alle wider zu in selber komen: do sungen sie ir metin mit grozer andaht auz.

During the first Advent that they sang according to the order... when they came to the fourth Sunday in Advent, while they were singing matins and had come to the fifth responsory "Virgo Israel" and the verse "In caritate perpetua," she sang it in German and with such inhuman beauty that one thought she was singing with an angel's voice. ... This holy convent became senseless from great devotion and fell down as if dead and lay thus until they had all come to themselves. Then they sang their matins to the end with great devotion.

While singing the solo verse of a responsory, the choir mistress had been seized by divine insight, spontaneously translating the Latin song into her mother tongue and performing the inspired text with inhuman beauty. Rather than responding with the prescribed text of the chant response, the rest of the community fell, rapt in ecstasy.

This story exemplifies some commonly accepted characteristics of late medieval female piety: liturgical devotion, embodiment, vernacularity, ecstatic experience, and community. In keeping with Caroline Walker Bynum's analysis of bodiliness and embodied response as a trait of women's spirituality, the Engelthal sisters are physically overcome by the beauty of Hailrat's song. A vernacular translation replaces the Latin of the Office, supporting the frequent association of women with vernacularity. Peter Ochsenbein has interpreted the story as an example of mystical exceptionalism, arguing that Hailrat was so overcome by a private experience of grace that she disturbed the performance of the Office for the entire convent. Erika Lauren Lindgren, on the other hand, asserts that the episode "emphasized the communality of monastic life," since Hailrat mediates and communicates extraordinary devotion to her sisters. This account of communal ecstasy is indeed a rich testament to fourteenth-century female piety. Yet if one attends to the event's context in the convent's history, another aspect emerges: praise of life under the Dominican order.

Like many of the southern German Dominican women's houses, the Engelthal community had begun as an assembly of beguines, that is, women living a pious life together but without having taken vows and without being enclosed in a convent. Their road to incorporation in the Dominican order was a long one, and they adopted some of the order's practices, including the Dominican liturgy, before being fully incorporated. As Christina Ebner informs us, this experience of ecstatic song was granted to the community in the first Advent sung nach dem orden, that is, according to the Dominican Office. The miracle that graces their newly ordered liturgical song thus confirms the early Engelthal sisters in their decision to join the Dominican order by demonstrating the worthiness of its practices. Standing at the beginning of the sisterbook, the story foreshadows the importance of the order as a font of spiritual experience throughout the sisters' lives as portrayed within the book.

Ruling the Spirit suggests a new paradigm for female liturgical piety in late medieval Germany by intervening at the nexus of two productive spiritual movements: fourteenth-century female Dominican spirituality and the fifteenth-century Observant reform. Rather than placing works by German Dominican women in conversation with spiritual writings by women of other orders and nationalities, I examine texts for German Dominican women for their statements about the Dominican order and the role of the order in fostering piety. Ruling the Spirit argues three related claims. First, contrary to received opinion that the Dominicans were not particularly interested in the liturgy, the friars placed the Divine Office at the center of Dominican women's spiritual lives from the order's origins through the end of the Middle Ages. Second, female Dominican liturgical piety was not a subversive expression of resistance or an attempt to wrest spiritual power away from the friars, but the fruition of the spirituality that the order's forma vitae was intended to entrain. Third, fourteenth-century mysticism does not represent a moment of radical ecstatic spirituality that had to be stamped out by the fifteenth-century Observant reform. Rather, these two devotional movements represent two points in a continuous devotional history of ordered liturgical piety.

I approach this literature with the understanding that no texts exist, or ever existed, that record mystical experience as such. As Werner Williams-Krapp has argued for Heinrich Seuse (Henry Suso), the texts that purport to record mystical experience are always already mystagogy. Their primary purpose is not to relate a past experience but to teach others how to achieve spiritual fulfillment. Even the lives of Dominican nuns as recounted in the sisterbooks do not provide access to past performance. The experience of hearing Hailrat's song is unavailable to us. All we can know is that the author, Christina Ebner, valued the Dominican Office as a source of devotion.

Pushing this argument even further, Ruling the Spirit is not, in a sense, about the lives of Dominican women at all. Rather, it is about the normative ideals presented to them in a variety of texts and genres by the friars responsible for their spiritual care. This holds true even in the case of the fourteenth-century sisterbooks, on which I focus in Chapter 3. These female-authored narratives present exemplary models of piety as much as they recount the lives of historical women. Moreover, they were revived and put back into circulation in the fifteenth century by the Observant reformer Johannes Meyer, who saw their pedagogical value. The Observance witnessed another blossoming of female chronicling, and Anne Winston-Allen and Heike Uffmann have done invaluable work bringing the first-hand accounts of fifteenth-century German religious women to scholarly attention. Whereas their work recovered women's participation in and reactions to the late medieval regular reforms, this book examines the rhetoric of pious observance of the order in German Dominican normative literature produced primarily by friars for women from the early fourteenth through the fifteenth century. With remarkable continuity across genres and centuries, this literature encourages strict observance of the Dominican order and devotion to its Office as the wellspring of spiritual experience and reward.

The Southern German region, encompassed by the Dominican province of Teutonia, lends itself to such a study for two reasons. First, the imbalanced proportion of Dominican sisters over friars in this province made the cura monialium a special concern. Second, within this region the Observant reform movement enjoyed an unusual degree of success. In 1303, the General Chapter of the Dominican order carved the province of Saxony out of Teutonia's northern regions, leaving the southern province with the vicariates of Brabantia (encompassing the Rhineland up to and including Cologne), Alsatia (which also contained Switzerland), Suevia (together with Franconia), and Bavaria (including Austria). At this time, a total of 141 communities of women were under Dominican care. Sixty-five of these lay within the province of Teutonia alone. The friars of Teutonia, possessing in 1303 only forty-seven houses, were significantly outnumbered by the houses of sisters. A hundred years later, Teutonia would become the first province to establish a reformed Observant friary; it would bury the first Master General to support the Observance; and it would see the greatest institutional success of the movement. The disproportionately large number of Dominican women and the success of the Observant reform (to which the women contributed no small part) made Teutonia fertile ground for vernacular devotional and didactic literature urging adherence to the order and spiritualizing performance of its Office.

I ground my study in the library collection of the Dominican convent of St. Katherine's in Nürnberg. Every text I treat was held by the convent library in the fifteenth century. St. Katherine's was reformed to the Observance in 1428 and grew to be one of the most significant Observant women's houses in the province, both by virtue of its zeal in sending reforming parties to sister houses and because of its vast library of books, both received from outside and copied by the sisters themselves. By the end of the fifteenth century, St. Katherine's owned at least 726 manuscripts, of which 161 were Latin, primarily liturgical manuscripts. The remaining 565 contained a broad variety of German texts. Most importantly, a library catalog and two table readings catalogs survive. The library catalog and the second table readings catalog were drawn up in the 1450s by Kunigunde Niklas, who served St. Katherine's as a prolific scribe before becoming librarian in 1451. Her catalogs reveal information about reception and use of the convent's holdings. For example, Kunigunde Niklas allotted Johannes Tauler's sermons, discussed in Chapter 2, for extensive reading before the community when they assembled for a meal. The surviving epistolary exchange between St. Katherine's in Nürnberg and the convent of St. Katherine's in St. Gallen, Switzerland, also contains information about the use and reception of this literature. The women of Nürnberg sent their St. Gallen sisters Johannes Meyer's Book of Duties and the Book of the Reformation, discussed in Chapter 6, in order to help them in their effort at self-reform. The presentation and transmission of these texts as recommended reading supports my methodological decision to read these texts as didactic or edifying literature rather than as mystical accounts.

One further concern requires preliminary discussion. My argument deals with ideals and exhortations for Dominican women's liturgical spirituality. As a study of didactic and devotional literature, Ruling the Spirit does not, nor does it aim to, recover the realities of late medieval women's Latinity. Nevertheless, the extent to which Dominican sisters understood the Latin Office texts affected their ability to participate in liturgical piety, and many of the arguments I make, especially in Chapter 3, assume a basic level of Latin comprehension. Although it was long assumed that late medieval nuns of all orders were generally Latin-illiterate, a growing body of scholarship argues for reassessing the Latinity of medieval religious women, often by adding nuance to the very notion of literacy. Adjusting our lens in this way allows us to move beyond reliance on women's original compositions or reception of prose literature as a means of assessing Latin comprehension to address liturgical Latin as a unique competency. Liturgical literacy and accuracy was an essential component of the order; reading theological treatises (for women) was not.

Despite evidence of flourishing vernacular literacy, the state of Latin fluency among the Dominican women of Teutonia remains an open question. While the library collections of several Southern German convents have been studied in some detail, the vast preponderance of German-language devotional material has led scholars to focus on vernacular sources within these collections. Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner has conducted the most comprehensive study of the educational expectations and practices of Southern German Dominican women. She notes that recruits to Dominican convents were expected to be litterata and able to read the psalter upon entrance to the novitiate. The sisterbook of St. Katherine's St. Gallen records that the Nürnberg sisters expected a novice to learn to read a little Latin from the psalter as well as singing and solmization before entering the convent. Dominican novices would have developed literacy either at home or in a city school. However, "literate" could mean anything from phonetic decoding to nuanced comprehension. Ehrenschwendtner assumes that the designation litterata did not imply understanding the Latin language but simply deciphering the signs on the page. In her recent study of the Observant Dominican convent of St. Katherine's in St. Gallen, Simone Mengis largely concurs with Ehrenschwendtner. Latin instruction in St. Gallen was practical and performance-oriented, so successful mastery did not necessarily entail comprehension of the Latin words, only accurate recitation.

The composition of the Latin holdings of St. Katherine's conforms to Ehrenschwendtner's and Mengis's assessments. Of the 161 Latin-language manuscripts, only 19 (12 percent) contained prayers, sermons, and treatises, while the rest were liturgical. None of these, nor any Latin text, are indicated as table readings in the catalog. It is possible that the few Latin prose manuscripts were not for the nuns at all but rather for the use of their male confessors, as Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner has argued for Altenhohenau and Simone Mengis for St. Katherine's in St. Gallen. It seems not even Latin regular documents were used; St. Katherine's owned multiple manuscripts with German translations of the Augustinian Rule and the Dominican Constitutions. The broad vernacularization of the order's legislation leads Mengis to conclude that a revival of higher standards of Latin literacy among women was not part of the Observant reform program. Although the Dominican women of Nürnberg avidly acquired and read vernacular literature, there is no evidence that they read Latin prose.

Eva Schlotheuber argues for a more optimistic assessment of late medieval religious women's Latin. She insists that in the Middle Ages litteratus/litterata always indicated facility in Latin language, not just phonetic literacy. She disagrees with the assumption that Latin-language volumes must have been intended for a male chaplain, and points to Karin Schneider's identification of several scribes among the Dominican nuns who copied liturgical Latin fluidly and accurately. Schlotheuber's more recent work on the northern German convent of Paradies bei Soest has borne out earlier claims, as her team has been able to demonstrate quite advanced levels of Latin literacy in the richly decorated choir books these women produced. Their study of this Dominican convent joins an explosion of recent research on the Cistercian communities of northern Germany, which similarly reveal high levels of Latin fluency, especially in the wake of the fifteenth-century reforms.

Despite differences in tenor and emphasis, all three scholars agree that the level of Latin literacy within a convent cannot have been uniform but varied from woman to woman. This observation conforms to more systematic assessments of Latin literacy in late medieval English convents. David Bell outlines levels of literacy prior to the ability to compose an independent text in the target language. These levels of ability range from phonetic decoding, to basic comprehension of commonly encountered liturgical texts, to full comprehension of nonliturgical Latin. Performance of the liturgy involved a great deal more than Latin language competency; it required a spectrum of literacies that encompassed music and musical notation in addition to grammar and letters. Katherine Zieman describes this "liturgical literacy" as also incorporating musical ability, swift decoding of script, and good memorization. Like Mengis, she emphasizes that this form of literacy did not aim for nuanced comprehension of a text, but rather that the range of abilities were subordinated to the goal of accurate performance.

Building on Bell's and Zieman's work, Anne Bagnall Yardley proposes a scale of liturgical literacy that ranges from singing the basic chants of the Divine Office from memory, to familiarity with the repertoire and ability to use the choir books, to knowledge of musical theory and even ability to compose polyphony. From consideration of the English sources, she concludes that the first two levels of ability would have been common and expected, whereas anything further was exceptional. Any choir nun would have been expected to be able to read not only Latin but also musical notation, in the sense that she needed to produce the sounds signified by the marks on the page. Latin literacy, like any linguistic fluency, was not an all-or-nothing game but could be acquired to varying degrees of competence. The extent to which she understood the words must have varied widely from nun to nun even within the same convent.

The paucity of Latin devotional literature in St. Katherine's in Nürnberg does not necessarily reveal any information about the sisters' ability to understand liturgical Latin. Indeed, sweeping generalizations about Latin fluency must give way to a more nuanced picture of varying competence, talent, and ability. In the absence of evidence that the women of a given convent wrote or read Latin tracts, we still cannot conclude that none of them understood the texts of the liturgy. As Bell, Zieman, and Yardley have argued, liturgical and prose Latin comprise two different levels of literacy, and it is entirely possible to understand the psalms of the Office without being able to read the Constitutions. Reception of prose literature cannot be used to draw conclusions about women's engagement with the Office.

It is worth noting, however, that in the argument over medieval women's literacy modern scholars often are picking up on the doubts of contemporaries. Fifteenth-century friars were deeply concerned by the idea that the nuns were merely parroting sounds without comprehending the words of the Office. This anxiety was motivated by an association of liturgical devotion with regular virtue. In 1454 Sister Katharina Holzschuher recorded a sermon delivered to St. Katherine's by a Friar Alanus, who asserts, "darumb ist es nütze vnd heilsam züuerstëen das man alle tag list und pet, wann die verstantnüße meret die süssen andacht, vnd wenn man verstet daz man singt, so außlaufft nit daz gemüte durch unzimlich züfell [It is useful and salutary to understand what you read and pray every day, since understanding increases sweet devotion, and when you understand what you sing, you do not lose your concentration to inappropriate thoughts]." A wandering mind is almost inevitable when singing what amounts to nonsense syllables. Since the choir nuns spent a hefty portion of the day singing Latin texts in the canonical hours, it was critical that this time be well spent in attentive contemplation rather than bored and mechanical rote performance, which too easily gave way to impure distraction.

I have elsewhere argued that the Observance did, in fact, witness a promotion of women's Latin literacy that has gone unrecognized as pedagogical material. Vernacular hymn translations did not replace the Latin hymns of the Office, but instead were used pedagogically for Latin language instruction that was oriented around the goals of the reform. Dominican friars in Teutonia encouraged Dominican women to understand enough liturgical Latin to engage in the Divine Office intelligently and in a way that would foster spiritual devotion. Throughout the later Middle Ages, Dominican friars approached comprehension of liturgical Latin and access to prose texts as separate issues, one of which was essential for their sisters' spiritual well-being and one of which was irrelevant. Interest in boosting women's Latin fluency was motivated by this concern alone: that observance of the Office in the manner prescribed by the order serve as a source of contemplation and devotion for the Dominican women of Teutonia.

Chapter Overview

My first chapter contends that, although the Dominicans prioritized preaching and study over liturgical observance among the friars, the Office held pride of place in the lives of the sisters. The legislative and normative documents produced at the foundation of the order demonstrate the central importance of liturgical piety in the regulations for Dominican women. Reconsidering Dominican legislation with close attention to the differences between the expectations for friars and for sisters provides a solid ground from which to approach the spiritual literature and devotional treatises which provide the subject of the remaining chapters. That is, having established what legally constituted the order and the Office, I turn to the vernacular treatises that urged women to observe it.

The second chapter explores the didactic interests of the early fourteenth century in the sermons of Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361) and the German writings of Heinrich Seuse (1295-1366). I argue that observance of the order also serves as a foundational tenet in the spiritual programs of these friars. Although they adopt the mystical concepts of Gelassenheit (detachment) and the ground of the soul from the quasi-heretical Meister Eckhart, both Tauler and Seuse insist that spiritual perfection be pursued with prudence and orderliness. The practices of the Dominican order, prominently including the Divine Office, constitute a form of spiritual training that orders the ground of the soul so that it might receive divine experience. Through presenting the life and liturgy of the order as a spiritual pursuit, Tauler's sermons and Seuse's writings offer ways to find divine experience within strict adherence to the Office.

In the third chapter I examine the collections of exemplary lives known as the sisterbooks. These pseudo-hagiographical narratives were collaboratively composed by the Dominican women of Teutonia in the first half of the fourteenth century to memorialize remarkable women of their own communities. Long seen as evidence of feminine mystical hysteria, these narratives seem to celebrate unruly women, and the Observant interest in them has defied explanation. I argue that, far from celebrating rebellious behaviors, the sisterbooks promote observance of the mandates of the order, foremost among which is the Divine Office. In transmitting the sisterbooks, Observants did not coopt and tame subversive monuments to women's independent spirituality, but rather promoted a body of edifying literature that had shared their emphases and concerns a century earlier. Finally, I show that the innovative force of the life narratives contained in the sisterbooks is expressed in a combinatorial creativity whereby not only the text but also the liturgical context of a citation is deployed in order to produce a mosaic of spiritual meaning that expands upon but grows out of the Dominican forma vitae.

In Chapter 4 I turn to the fifteenth century to consider the place of the Office in Observant legislation and regulatory documents. The recent explosion of scholarship on the Observance has not systematically examined the place of the liturgy in the fifteenth-century reform. Yet, as perusal of visitation letters and the acts of the General Chapters shows, the liturgy was arguably more important to Observant reformers than it had been to the founders they venerated. The Observants insisted that both friars and nuns revive a strict and zealous performance of the order's liturgy. Moreover, they developed a pedagogical program aimed at helping the Dominican sisters understand the Office they were bound to observe.

In the final two chapters I examine texts by prominent and prolific Dominican Observant reformers active in the province of Teutonia in the fifteenth century. In Chapter 5 I consider two early fifteenth-century German versions of the patristic writer John Cassian's Conferences, a set of spiritual dialogues with desert fathers. One version presents a direct and unabridged translation, while the other consists of a loosely inspired sermon cycle worked up into a treatise and known as The Twenty-Four Golden Harps. The Dominican reformer Johannes Nider (d. 1438) was either catalyst or composer of both texts, which were initially both received by the Dominican convent of St. Katherine's in Nürnberg. The direct translation remains practically unstudied, but the treatise has been taken as evidence both of Nider's misogyny and of his imposition of a monastic lifestyle on the laity. A comparison of the texts, however, reveals drastically different treatments of Cassian's statements concerning liturgical performance and visual piety. I argue that Nider held that contemplative visualization was sufficient for lay devotion, but devout recitation of the Office was the foundation on which Dominican women should build their spiritual lives.

In the final chapter I turn to Johannes Meyer (1422/23-1485), a prolific vernacular chronicler and staunch supporter of the Observance, particularly in the women's branch of the order. Meyer's Book of Duties, a practical description of a convent's various jobs, and the Book of the Reformation, a chronicle cum sisterbook of the Observance, both present normative visions for convent life in which the Office plays a pivotal role. Meyer presents community as the most important factor in Observant life and spirituality. For him, the liturgy is both the common task of the Observant community and the means by which this community is founded and defined. The Book of Duties describes a team of sisters collaborating to organize and perform the Office, as well as to prepare the younger generation to assume these duties. In the Book of the Reformation, Meyer shows how public processions and enclosure ceremonies involving the laity define the Observant community by ritual separation, but also underline and celebrate the convent's embeddedness in and dependence on the surrounding civil society. For Meyer, the Office was the means by which Observant Dominican women would define their communities, reform devotion, and carry the order into the future.